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JEAN SHEPHERD–early NYC & G. S. Kaufman

-NEW YORK TIMES, JUNE 3, 1961–

George S. Kaufman the playwright, director and producer

died yesterday of a heart attack at his home,

1035 Park Avenue. He was 71 years old.

_________________

Authoritative info is scarce as to what Shepherd did in his early days in New York City. He arrived some time in 1955.

Why and when did he come here? What was it like for him then? Circumstantial evidence based on one of his broadcasts suggests that it was an undeniable force that drew Shep as well as innumerable others to the the Big Apple, as it was considered the height of the artistic and creative world at that time in addition to tops in radio broadcasting. In one broadcast in which he says he was offered a radio job in Juneau, Alaska, three co-workers convince him that the place to go for radio is NYC.

In another broadcast he says, “I came to New York as a television performer and I worked in television for a long time before I got to town.” True, he did some TV work earlier. But he was a radio man. A special kind of radio man. Newspaper radio schedules show that he began New York broadcasting at WOR in 1955 in a variety of time slots, mostly daytime. (Not until  January 1956 did he begin his overnight shows.)

Immediately upon notice of Kaufman’s death, in the broadcast of June 2, 1961 titled “George Kaufman,” Shepherd talks about how lonely and depressed he was when he first arrived, presumably in early 1955. Author and playwright George S. Kaufman had phoned him at WOR — an important moment for Shepherd. Shepherd discusses this experience–not in his “story” mode–as a part of his life, and I believe that he accurately describes it.

An internet site reports that Kaufman was born in Pittsburgh in 1889. That he won two Pulitzer Prizes for his collaborations in the theater, that he was best known for his sharp wit, his eye for social satire, and his ear for comic speech. That he worked with and befriended famous actors such as the Marx Brothers and authors such as John Steinbeck. No wonder that Shepherd was impressed and proud.

1966-10-07_022_IGWT_photo_doubleday

george s kaufman

         GEORGE S. KAUFMAN

            JEAN P. SHEPHERD

Shep describes what happened. [Be advised that, to keep the post relatively concise and to concentrate on Shep’s appreciation of Kaufman, I’ve cut a number of minor side issues and little “He said”/”I said” bits from the original transcript] :

I arrived in this town a completely unidentifiable object. Most of us need identity to tell what’s good or bad….I was here about two weeks, maybe three weeks. I felt very depressed. I was in New York City and New York City is a very closed city, particularly in the field of theatrical entertainment. And especially in the field of humor.

If you’re not doing it on the stage of the Blue Angel you’re not funny.  That’s all there is to it. If you’r not doing it on an LP with a crowd of idiots cheering you–you’re not funny.

I came on here and I was very lonely, and the people here at the station–they had no idea what I was doing. So this kind of entertainment was difficult. It was a new kind of thing. The engineers were looking at me blankly, because it didn’t fit into one of their categories. The program directors here were confused, and it was like I was speaking Sanskrit in a world where people spoke Pidgin English. I arrived a lonely figure here, believe me. I had come from an area where people did understand. I had been there long enough–they had listened carefully, you see. People in New York hardly ever do. New York is a much faster area. People have to understand something in thirty seconds–or whatever it is is nuts–“it’s no good–it’s a nut, why doesn’t he play the record?”

You can imagine the struggle I had. It’s not that my stuff is long–not at all. But what it really is, is that it takes a great deal of listening to understand the whole aura, the point that I’m making. It is a sprawling thing. And I agree, I understand this. Well, through a series of odd little circumstances, I did get on the air and it was on a Saturday afternoon.

I can’t tell you how depressed I was. I was extremely depressed because immediately after I would go off the air, hundreds of New Yorkers would call up. And New Yorkers, by the way are among the most intolerant people I’ve ever encountered, and they would be very indignant–“What is this–what is this nutty stuff on the air, what is all this going on here? What is this trivia stuff here? Get it off! Get the record on. Gimme the news, I want the news there.” And of course, this went on hour after hour. Well, the people here stuck with it.

Then one day.This was only about three weeks after I had been there. I was depressed. I was earning minus two-dollars a week. I came out of the studio and there was a phone call. And of course all of these irritating phone calls I had not been bothering with.

I picked up the phone because the guy said, “You better talk to this one,”

And there was a voice on the other end. Sort of a nasal voice. He said, “You know you’re one of the funniest men I’ve ever heard in thirty-five years of show business. Don’t go away.”

I said, “Who are you?”

“Well, doesn’t really matter.”

I said, “Well, thirty-five years in show business, who are you?”

“My name is Kaufman. And I called up to talk about your program and I want to meet you and I want to talk to you about something.”

Well, to make a long story short, it was George Kaufman. And Kaufman was a man of unusual courage. He was also a man who had, as far as I know, and in my contacts with him–which were necessarily brief–were–he had qualities which went beyond the problems most of us are constantly running into. Such things as rank, such things as the little idiotic, trivial things like–this is something that you don’t do. 

Well, I was very depressed, and this was a tremendous shot in the arm, truly. And Kaufman said he had been listening for the last two weeks. He’d almost caught the first show!

He said, “Come on over.”

Well, I visited–I went to his apartment on Park Avenue, the one where he died, and I got upstairs where he lived. It was not sumptuous. it was a nice place, of course, very small, very compact, very unpretentious.

I walked in and he greeted me at the doorway. It was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.

He said, “I’m sure pleased to meet you. You know what, I’ll tell you something.” He said, “Come on in, come on in.” He was a very frail man and at that point his hair was almost completely white.

He said, “Would you like a drink?”

I said, “Yeah, yeah, fine.” I didn’t know what to say. This is George Kaufman, see, and I’m the bumpkin from Middle West. 

He poured me some Scotch and we sat there. He said, “You know, I want to tell you something about your work.” And he talked about my work for about an hour-and-a-half.

He said, “You know what you’re doing is a kind of theater. It’s a different kind of theater.” And he said, “I’m sure that nobody’s going to know that. I think you’d better get into real theater. The theater that everyone understands, because they’ll understand it then.” He said, “I want to work with you.” He wanted to collaborate. I’m just telling you the straight story. He wanted to work on a piece that I had done on the air. He said, “We ought to make a play out of that.”  

We had several meetings and unfortunately, just at that point he got into very bad health. He was really badly off. He would call me every couple of weeks and his voice got weaker and weaker, and he said, “I wish we could work, but I can’t. But I’ll get back.”

I met him several times after that, but there’s one thing you’ve got to remember. He was a listener. He really was one of us. Every night and every Saturday–he rarely went out–he would listen.

And one time he called me over. “You know who just got into town?”

I said “Who?”

He said, “Well, it’s a funny thing .” And he proceeded to tell me about  one of the Marx brother’s wives. He said, “You know, she arrived into town here last night and she was a New Yorker, and the first thing she said was, ‘Is Shepherd still on the air?’ And she and I sat and we talked about things you’d done and she said she wants to meet you.”

So I went over there and shot the breeze with one of the Marx’s brothers wives and we talked for three or four hours and we discussed F. P. A. and all the other great people who had worked here in New York in humor in days before.

And the last time I saw Kaufman–and this was only about eight months ago. He was standing in the doorway and he said, “You know, I’m working on something . When I finish it, you and I are going to work together. We’re going to get working on this project.”

I picked up the Times and saw his picture–and I was very sad to find that he had died. A wonderful man. Somehow, a really important one. Not because of what his work was–because his work was good–but because of his attitude and his viewpoint. 

____________

From the New York Times obit:

Mr. Kaufman was an eccentric character. He was always hatless, his brushy pompadour untidy. He talked to himself and grimaced as he walked along the street. Detesting vegetables, he was said to subsist on meat, bread and chocolate peppermints.

____________

Oh, what a piece of theater it would have been!

___________________________________________

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10 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great post!

    • ebbergmann says:

      Thank you. I’m pleased with it because it says something about what it was like for Shepherd to arrive in the Big Apple and feel lonely and unappreciated. And then he encounters a great personage who suggests a collaboration that might lead to great things–only to have that lead to nothing–except an interesting story that makes him look good, but which represents one more time when he could have had a really great career boost, but fate was against him.

  2. mygingerpig says:

    Gene, this is a great post.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  3. Stu Tarlowe says:

    A great story, indeed! Thanks for sharing it! But please clarify: Who was “F.P.A.”?

    Also, regarding “Juno, Alaska”: Uh, that would be “Juneau”.

    Cheers, Stu Tarlowe

    • ebbergmann says:

      Franklin Pierce Adams
      Columnist
      Franklin Pierce Adams was an American columnist, well known by his initials F.P.A., and wit, best known for his newspaper column, “The Conning Tower”, and his appearances as a regular panelist on radio’s Information Please. Wikipedia
      Born: November 15, 1881, Chicago, IL
      Died: March 23, 1960, New York City, NY.

      Thanks for the Juneau correction.

  4. mygingerpig says:

    In the course of a conversation with a newly acquainted business colleague, I mentioned my appreciation for Shep, and he lit up. He too was a Shep listener in the 50s and 60s. He is also very good friends with Barry Farber. When I last saw this fellow, he said be mentioned our conversation to Farber. Barry he said he’d enjoy getting together to talk about Shep. So I anticipate doing this, sometime in the near future. Stay tuned. Any thoughts about what I might ask Farber about Shep?

  5. mygingerpig says:

    I’ll ask. Might his reasons had something to do with declining health? I gather he had diabetes that was taking a toll on his vision among other things. The climate and ability to get around where he moved are possible factors.

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